Relevance Rules

Unlocking the cultural markets through cultural identity

by Amy Chen

Ms. Chen is director of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company’s Chinese market development. She can be reached at

Who doesn’t know the cautionary tale about how General Motors’ marketing campaign for its Nova automobile that supposedly failed in Latin America? Although the debate continues as to whether it’s fact or fiction, the fable serves to teach an important lesson to all marketers: if you want to be successful, know the language and culture of the group to whom you are trying to reach.
There are a wide number of cultural groups in the United States (African-American, Latino, Asian), and even those groups are further segmented- by country of origin, degree of acculturation, generation and family make-up, to start- and many marketers are realizing their impact on the country’s economy. Research tells us these groups are savvy consumers and are intensely brand loyal. They want to connect with brands that not only offer them the products and services that they are looking for, but also do so in a way that is relevant to them, and what is relevant is closely interwoven with their cultural identity.

Marketing to multicultural groups has evolved way past the fundamentals. ‘Knowing your customer’ does not mean merely acknowledging holidays and cultural observations. It’s about relevance- showing an in depth knowledge of culture and traditions and using the consumer’s language of preference.
In the Chinese-American market, my specialty, respect is one of the most important aspects of any marketing effort. The history of the Chinese people in the United States is fraught with the struggle for respect. Many Chinese came to the U.S. as little more than slave labor to build the railways, struggling to earn respect for themselves and for their children.
Clearly, Chinese-Americans have moved past the days of railroad building, but the desire for and acknowledgment of respect is still key, as they struggle to counteract the many stereotypes that still exist. Modern day Chinese Americans are not all running Chinese restaurants or laundries, although popular culture often depicts them as such.

Getting Acquainted
Because knowing a culture intimately is key to marketing and selling success, a lot of up-front-work must be done to prepare to market to a multicultural group. Conducting consumer market research should always be the first step in the marketing process. My company embarked on approaching multicultural markets with both quantitative and qualitative research. The first step was to find out how well-known the brand was among these groups. Even though MassMutual has a presence through its affiliates in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, the company’s name recognition was very low in the U.S., and those who had heard of the company believed that it was new to the industry, despite our 160-year history.

As a second step, we hired an experienced cultural and advertising collaborator that was not only well-versed in the Chinese culture, but had been successfully working in it for some time. Admerasia – one of the top full-service Asian-American advertising agencies – was engaged to help develop and build our brand. Through research and guidance from Admerasia, a culturally adapted Chinese version of the company tagline – We’ll help you get there® – was developed in conjunction with an appropriate brand name translation. The resulting brand name literally translates to ‘Prosper, Mutual-Benefit Financial (Service)’ and the accompanying tagline, ‘Life’s journey is yours to steer. Make it smooth and prosperous.’ Lesson learned: merely translating our English-language materials to Chinese is not good enough.

In addition, we have tapped in to the knowledge of our financial services professionals across the country who have been working and successful in various multicultural markets for years. They are immersed in the communities with which they work, sometimes sharing the same cultural background. Their insights were extremely valuable to us. These experienced professionals reinforced what we have learned from our research: the importance of providing in-language materials, even though we know the market is fully bilingual, to show respect for the culture and the people, as well as the convergence of advertising and education in many multicultural media outlets.
Since then, we have created unique, culturally rich, in-language materials that celebrate a multifaceted group of people.

Building Brand Awareness:
The Importance of Being Present in a Meaningful Way

Our Lunar New Year ads are particularly good examples of creating something that is very culturally relevant within the context of a very important and traditional celebration. Lunar New Year is THE most important cultural celebration for Asian-Americans, so having a presence during this time is critical. With a brand presence that is slowly building, sitting out the Lunar New Year would be as if we didn’t exist. Any company that is serious about playing in the Asian-American markets is expected to mark the Lunar New Year, and to a lesser extent, the Moon Festival.
We chose to not only have a Lunar New Year presence, but to have a highly significant presence. For the past three Lunar New Years, we’ve stepped up the basic greeting and ad with an artistic and unique depiction of the animal that symbolizes the year. MassMutual actually has built the animal symbol for each year out of culturally significant items.

This year, the dragon was the Chinese calendar animal. And, for Chinese-Americans, a dragon – designed from jade, firecrackers, Chinese knots and the traditional red envelopes – symbolizes beauty, love and protection from evil spirits as it plays with a Dragon Pearl or Fire Ball. But knowing how different each Asian culture’s identity is, MassMutual built a dragon for the Korean Lunar New Year, as well: decorated in Hanbok stripes – a popular design element found in most Korean arts and crafts that is a highly expressive form of cultural identity – and symbolizing protection. These signature ads have been very well received.

Going through the steps of the marketing process cannot be ignored when seeking to approach multicultural markets. In fact, understanding and awareness of them needs to be ratcheted up and applied even more rigorously for success. Begin by learning about the attitudes, motivations, needs, wants and desires of multicultural markets, as well as the diversification that exist within each segment.

Seek the help of those knowledgeable about and experienced in the market and execute in a way that is highly attuned to the uniqueness of the culture. Your reward for such patience and diligence will be the extreme loyalty of multicultural segments that are growing in size and influence in the U.S.